Disney has long enjoyed a rarified position as a family-friendly company that’s been a champion of all things good.
Which is why it’s surprising that Spectrum, one of the biggest players in an industry that’s largely reviled, comes off as the hero in a dispute over programming costs that has led to Disney pulling ESPN, FX and its other channels from the cable giant.
Spectrum and its parent Charter has owned the narrative from the get go. A day before the deadline, it put up a site, DisneyESPNFairDeal.com, that warned the public about a possible breakdown in negotiations. It also alerted subscribers with messages on screen, telling them about the possibility.
Spectrum was also the first to relay the breakdown in talks, updating its site minutes after 8 p.m. ET to explain its side while positioning itself as a defender of consumers’ rights. “Spectrum is on your side and fighting to keep costs down while protecting and maximizing customer choice,” the company said. It held a follow-up call on Friday morning, saying it would be willing to walk away from Disney.
Disney’s response was far more bland, confirming in emails that the sides hadn’t come to an agreement and expressing a commitment to finding a resolution.
The stark difference in how the two companies communicated their messages goes a long way toward how they’ll be positioned in the court of public opinion. Ultimately, this is just the latest in an increasingly common string of disputes, sometimes lasting days, or even months, as media companies and pay TV providers haggle over programming costs. But with customers losing out on programming – including the start of college football season on ESPN – the fights get ugly and emotionally loaded.
We don’t know enough of the negotiations to truly know which side is right or wrong – or if there even is a right or wrong. But right now, it’s clear Spectrum is winning the PR battle.
Spectrum let its customers know there might be a blackout a day in advance, giving it the chance to control the narrative. It consistently stuck to the message of protecting consumer choice and keeping costs down.
After the talks broke down and Disney pulled its content, Spectrum was the first to send a comment to media:
We are disappointed with The Walt Disney Company’s decision to remove their networks from our lineup and deny our customers the opportunity to watch.
We would agree to The Walt Disney Company’s significant rate increase despite their declining ratings. But they are trying to force our customers to pay for their very expensive programming, even those customers who don’t want it or worse, can’t afford it.
The current video ecosystem is broken. With The Walt Disney Company, we have proposed a model that creates better alignment for the industry and better choices for our customers. We are hopeful we can find a path forward.
Note the use of phrases like “force our customers” and a “broken” video ecosystem. Spectrum is positioning this as a big line in the sand as it stands up for its customers.
Comparatively, here’s Disney full statement:
We’ve been in ongoing negotiations with Charter Communications for some time and have not yet agreed to a new market-based agreement. As a result, their Spectrum TV subscribers no longer have access to our unrivaled portfolio of live sporting events and news coverage plus kids, family and general entertainment programming from the ABC Owned Television Stations, the ESPN networks, the Disney-branded channels, Freeform, the FX networks and the National Geographic channels. Disney Entertainment has successful deals in place with pay TV providers of all types and sizes across the country, and the rates and terms we are seeking in this renewal are driven by the marketplace. We’re committed to reaching a mutually agreed upon resolution with Charter and we urge them to work with us to minimize the disruption to their customers.
It’s a standard boilerplate response to a dispute, but doesn’t say much about why this would benefit consumers.
Disney’s had a tough time lately, and further hurting the company in the perception game is the fact that it just announced price hikes for its direct-to-consumer streaming services Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu + Live TV. The increases don’t come until October, but given the last price hike came less than a year ago, consumers aren’t thrilled with the change.
Spectrum will undoubtedly get its fair share of haters and as the source of entertainment in many homes, it will get a lot blame for losing big channels like ESPN.
After all, it takes two sides to come to a disagreement.
Pushing for big changes
That Spectrum is taking such a proactive approach is indicative of the big ask it’s making from Disney.
The company said on a call with investors on Friday that it had proposed bundling some streaming services with a number of live TV channels, a sort of hybrid cable-streaming package.
In addition, Spectrum said it wanted Disney to make Disney+ and its upcoming ESPN streaming service free for its subscribers.
It’s clear why Spectrum wants to make this deal. ESPN is one of the crown jewels of the cable bundle, and a big reason why subscribers stick with it vs. moving to an a la carte streaming model. Disney offering ESPN as a standalone service outside of the bundle could hasten the already accelerating declines for the cable business.
Spectrum is arguing that Disney’s more traditional approach of sticking with ESPN as part of the cable bundle would cost consumers more, especially as the media giant insists on sticking Disney content into more packages.
Spectrum said it would be willing to walk away from Disney if the two companies can’t find a way to work together. That could just be posturing, as it would be a shocking development if the second-largest cable provider in the US is no longer able to offer ESPN, FX, the Disney Channel and a number of local ABC affiliates in big cities.
But it looks like Spectrum is laying the groundwork to mitigate the public backlash if it ever gets to that doomsday scenario. We’ll see if Disney gets more vocal in response.